Tar water

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Tar-water was a medieval medicine consisting of pine tar and water. It was foul-tasting, and so it slowly dropped in popularity, but it was revived in the Victorian era. It is used both as a tonic and as a substitute to get rid of "strong spirits". Both of these uses were originally advocated by the philosopher George Berkeley, who lauded tar water in his tract Siris, a chain of philosophical reflections and inquiries, concerning the virtues of tar-water.[1]

The use of the medicine is mentioned in the second chapter of Charles Dickens's Great Expectations. Young Pip and his brother in law, Joe, were often force fed it by Mrs. Joe, Pip's elder sister, whether they were ill or not, as sort of cruel punishment.

The physician Cadwallader Colden extolled the virtues of pine resin steeped in water. This concoction also was called "Tar water".[2]

In the introduction of his Journal of A Voyage to Lisbon Henry Fielding considers tar-water a panacea for treating dropsy: "But even such a panacea one of the greatest scholars and best of men did lately apprehend he had discovered (...). The reader, I think, will scarce need to be informed that the writer I mean is the late bishop of Cloyne, in Ireland, and the discovery that of the virtues of tar-water".[3] By the Bishop of Cloyne, Fielding refers to the above-mentioned philosopher George Berkeley.

Other References[edit]

Fleuriot the lieutenant, who suffers from Consumption in second degree, is mentioned to have been advised to take tar water in aid of his battle against the ailment, by Sarrazin the general in Memoirs of Vidocq by Eugène François Vidocq:

How much fatter should you be, if I put you on half-pay? Oh, you have a fine prospect at home: if you are rich, to die gradually with overnursing;if you are poor, to encrease the misery of your parents, and finish your days in a hospital. I am a doctor for you:and my prescription is a bullet, and then your cure will follow;if you escape that, the knapsack will do for you, or marching and exercise will put you to rights;these are additional chances. Besides, do as I do, drink tar-water; that is worth all your jalaps, and gruels, and messe.' At the same time, he stretched out his arm, he seized a large pitcher, which was near him, and filled a can, which he offered to me, and all refusal was in vain. I was compelled to swallow some of the nauseous stuff, as was also the aide-de-camp .

—Eugène François Vidocq,  p. 144 Chapter XIX [4]


  1. ^ B. A. G. Fuller: History of Philosophy: Modern, "Locke, Berkeley and Hume"
  2. ^ David A. Grimaldi: Amber - window to the Past. New York 1966
  3. ^ Henry Fielding: Journal of A Voyage to Lisbon
  4. ^ Memoirs of Vidocq: Principal Agent of the French Police Until 1827. Carey, 1834